Arkansas enters Saturday's season-opener 8 ½ point underdogs and one man holds the key to an upset victory over USC. And that's Reggie.
With stud sophomore tailback Darren McFadden likely sidelined because of his late night Adam Vinatieri impersonation, the Razorbacks will have to rely on their "D" to bring home a "W." The man holding the reins of that D is none other than Reggie -- Arkansas Defensive Coordinator Reggie Herring, that is.
Yes, this is the same Reggie Herring whose defense gave up 736 yards in last year's 70-17 drubbing to USC. Even third-stringer Mike McDonald had a touchdown pass in last year's home-opening smackdown. But following that SC track meet and a home date against Auburn in which the Razorbacks conceded 436 yards of offense, Reggie turned the Hawgs D right around.
In the two games that followed, the suddenly lightning-quick, opportunistic Arkansas defense held SEC Champion Georgia to 217 total yards and South Carolina to 187 in a 14-10 defeat. Steve Spurrier, the first year coach of "the other" USC, was used to putting up 187 yards per quarter against Houston Nutt when the "Old Ball Coach" was the head man at Florida.
And what about the last game the Razorbacks played? In Baton Rouge, the Hawgs limited a surging LSU attack to just 19 points in a heart-breaking two-point defeat. That's the same LSU team that put up 40 points against Miami in the Peach Bowl a month later. Forty points is a big deal against a Miami defense that many pundits believe will be the nation's best this fall.
Arkansas' linebacking corps is fast, tenacious, and aggressive. This is exactly the type of defense that can capitalize on the inexperience of young quarterbacks and running backs. Throughout last season and into fall camp, John David Booty has shown the ability to deliver accurate balls at any distance when he has time. If the Razorbacks front four can get a solid push up front, look for Booty to struggle, at least through the first half.
Establishing that solid front-four is exactly what attracted Arkansas Head Coach Houston Nutt to Reggie Herring two off-seasons ago. Herring spent one season as the Defensive Coordinator at NC State and undoubtedly made his mark. The Wolfpack led the nation in total defense, allowing just over 220 yards per game.
The season before Herring's arrival they allowed over 420 yards per game and ranked 89th in the nation. Herring's short-lived NC State "legacy" continues to live on at the next level. Herring was essential in developing three first round draft picks from the NC State defensive line, including one guy named Mario Williams, who was selected ahead of Bush in last April's NFL Draft.
Arkansas DE/LB Desmond Sims is no Mario Williams and DT Jamaal Anderson is no Manny Lawson, but these two had breakout seasons last year, specifically in October and November. The Trojans have a boatload of talent on offense, and have experience in the passing game with Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. And that's exactly where this game may be won or lost.
Not to put too much pressure on JDB (as if taking the reins of what was the most efficient offense in college football history isn't enough pressure), but the result of this game depends on how well he throws the ball and whether or not he turns it over.
While the slew of freshman tailbacks can be thrilling to watch and have great futures ahead of them, they may struggle in a hostile setting against this strong Arkansas front seven. Remember what Reggie Bush and Lendale White did in SEC country in their first game as Trojans? Nothing. Bush and White combined for 15 yards on 10 carries, and Leinart and Hershel Dennis were forced to carry the load.
The weakness in this much-improved Arkansas defense lies in the secondary, where four new starters take the reins. John David Booty could have a field day downfield as two inexperienced safeties in Randy Kelly and Michael Grant take over in the back part of the secondary.
Not since the 2004 season has there been this much pressure on the passing game to step up and bring home the win, especially after a transitional year in which the Sarkiffin era truly begins. The playcalling of this duo and the performance of their fourth year quarterback, John David Booty, will likely decide which team starts the season with a one-game winning streak and which lengthens their losing mark to two straight.
Getting off to a strong start isn't the only factor motivating the Razorbacks against USC. Arkansas felt last year that they could come to the Coliseum and beat the mighty Trojans. After eight offensive plays, the Trojans put those upset dreams to bed. The Arkansas players were demoralized by the 53-point defeat and few have forgotten that the Trojans rubbed it in by throwing for their final score with just over a minute left in the game.
A new era begins on offense for the Trojans on Saturday, with a test far more difficult than most fans imagine. With plenty of weapons on the field and perhaps America's most underrated defensive coordinator on the sideline this Arkansas defensive unit is ready to hold USC under 20 points for the first time in 52 games. For Kiffin, Sarkisian, and the athletes on the field, it's like taking a final on the first day of school.
If Arkansas can slow down the Trojan attack and come away with one of the bigger wins in the Houston Nutt era, the crowd in Fayetteville might be chanting the name Reggie. While most NCAA football fans don't know who Reggie Herring is today, they will someday. Let's just hope that ‘someday' isn't this Saturday.